I half-heartedly read the first five chapters of The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb (2002), knowing it had received generally unfavorable reviews from fans of the epic fantasy genre. (It has an Amazon rating of like 2.25 stars, which is pretty bad for a book from a major publisher.) Five chapters might not sound like much, but the chapters in this book are miles long. Five chapters works out to 149 pages or 25% of the book.
You might think that within 149 pages, some sort of exciting plot would begin, but you would be wrong. It’s all setup and backstory. The hero’s journey is nowhere to be found, so it did not take me long to start skimming. (By skimming, I mean I read the first sentence of every paragraph, or skipped everything but dialog.) There is a lot of exposition at the beginning of this book, and thus very little action.
Unlike Wizard’s First Rule, this book never even came close to growing on me. So what lessons did I learn from examining this book?
In late, out early. You guessed it, some kind of action or movement should begin pretty early in the book, even in the exposition-heavy epic fantasy genre. (I kind of knew this already, actually.) This is called the “in-late, out-early” theory of scene development. It’s not fun to read people sitting around talking (or worse, thinking) about the history of the world and the war that happened three hundred years ago … right at the beginning. It’s like reading the author’s worldbuilding notes. That information should be doled out as needed while the characters are fighting orcs or walking to Mordor.
Keep chapters on the short side. I prefer shorter chapters. Mainly because sometimes I just want to read a little bit, and I don’t like to stop unless I’m at a chapter break. With long chapters, I get annoyed because I have to stop in mid-thought. Also, if the long chapter is mostly exposition, I start thinking something like, “Oh God will this chapter ever end?”
Avoid childishly salacious characters. I’m pretty sure the oversexualized sorceress is a cliche now. Just don’t do it. But if you are going to do it, definitely don’t do five of them, where the only distinguishing feature between them is the color of their hair. And at least pretend they have some subtlety to their amorous ways. Epic fantasies aren’t comic books.
Flaws, flaws, flaws. Again, the best characters have some kind of flaw. Everyone can’t be awesome at everything, or you have to depend completely on your setting and plot. Characters need crippling weaknesses that make them suffer as if they were dragged through the pits of hell … just to make a ham sandwich. (And no, Prince Tristan, bedding half the women in the land instead of picking a wife is not a suitable flaw.)
Stick to first person or third person limited. Newcomb made an odd perspective choice. It’s sort of like third person limited, except we get to hear the thoughts of everyone in the scene. Yet it doesn’t go quite as far as omniscent voice, because the narrator is not an identifiable character. It does not come across well, in my opinion. UPDATE 4/5: I have since learned (from Writing Excuses) that this is an odd form of omniscient viewpoint. It’s still weird.